Part I: Complex Trauma & Relationship Distress

By: Katherine Van Meyl, M.A.

“We keep having the same fight over and over again.” 

“I feel so angry when he doesn’t listen to me, I feel out of control!” 

“Sometimes when we are talking, I just zone out and think of other things.”

“When I feel this way, I actually hate her, which is crazy, because I love her!”

I’ve noticed that people attend relationship therapy when they feel “stuck,” and are having the “same fight” repeatedly with their partner(s), leaving them feeling angry, resentful, hopeless, sad, and alone. I have seen people experience this regardless of their relationship structure (monogamous, non-monogamous, kinky), gender identity, and/or sexual orientation. You’re not alone! This is more common than you might realize.

Usually, something real is happening in the moment. For example, you might feel rejected and/or angry because your partner “cut you off” during a conversation. When you try to address this with your partner, your partner becomes defensive (“that wasn’t my intent!”), which further angers you. As a result of this experience, maybe you feel the need to “escape,” shut down, or get so angry you threaten to end the relationship. The depth of your emotions, how much you feel whatever you’re feeling, is often an indication that something deeper is going on. 

This is the work of therapy, figuring out all the textures and layers of what is happening “beneath the surface” in our relationships and learning to differentiate our past experiences from our present.

If you and/or your partner(s) identify with some of what is written here, you may benefit from Developmental Couple Therapy for Complex Trauma (DCTCT). This treatment was developed by Dr. Heather MacIntosh, C. Psych., to help couples cope with the long-term impacts of childhood trauma, including emotional, physical, and sexual trauma. Many clinicians at CFIR-CPRI have been trained in this approach.

The goal of DCTCT is to help couples learn how to tolerate, understand, and manage their own and their partner’s emotions, how to understand each other’s perspectives, and how to be present and engaged to meet one another’s emotional and attachment needs. 

The treatment involves four stages. In Stage One, the focus is on establishing a relationship with your therapist and understanding how trauma impacts relationships, attachment styles, sexuality, and shame. In Stage Two, the focus is on skill building, particularly mentalizing capacities and emotion regulation capacities. In Stage Three, the therapy moves towards understanding how you and your partner may be re-creating certain traumatic “scenes” from childhood (the vignettes above likely have elements that can be traced back to early childhood experiences). Without the ability to mentalize and regulate our emotions, stage three would be too triggering for couples. Finally, in Stage Four, learning is consolidated and treatment ends. I will expand more on this in a future blog post! Keep an eye out for it in early 2023.

As with most treatment models that have “stages,” people in relationships weave in and out of these stages at different times throughout treatment. That’s normal! This treatment model is a guide, but every relationship is different and therefore, may need more time in certain stages than others.

If you and/or your partner(s) are interested in learning more about trauma, how it impacts our relationships and how it can be treated, please get in touch. 

With guidance, it’s possible to start shifting these patterns in our relationships.

Katherine Van Meyl, M.A., is a trauma-focused psychodynamic therapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. Katherine works with individuals, couples and families with a specific focus on relational distress, trauma and PTSD. Katherine is supervised by Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C. Psych., for adults & couples and Dr. Lila Hakim, R.P., C. Psych., for families. 

THE CBT CLINIC and CPRI (Centre pour les Relations Interpersonelles – services in French) Grand Opening is January 2023!